Duration: 20 minutes or up two hours for more flavor
Recommended Ages: Adults over 21
Description: Make and taste this popular wine-based drink from George Mason’s lifetime, and learn about how non-importation affected colonists.

Colonial Cocktails

During George Mason’s lifetime, several mixed drinks, or proto-cocktails if you will, rose to prominence.  This family of drinks, which included punch [link to the punch page], toddy, and negus, focused on a blend of alcohol, citrus, and sugar.  The person mixing the drink, often the host or a participant at a party, decided on how much of each ingredient to include, so each batch likely had a different taste.  Some batches were sweeter, others more tart, and some heavier with alcohol.  

In its heyday, negus usually contained roughly equal parts of water and wine  Eventually the basic recipe evolved, with cookbooks suggesting mixing one part of wine with four parts of water.  Author Isabella Beeton wrote that such a watered-down drink was appropriate only for children’s parties.  (Yes, you read that right.  Mid-19th-century cookbooks really did recommend serving weak sweetened wine to kids.)

Let’s return to the 18th century.  All of the ingredients for negus—wine, sugar, and lemon—were imports from other British colonies in the Caribbean or Europe.  Sugar, for example, was largely manufactured in colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica, where it was produced with slave labor.  

Starting in the 1760s, and through the American Revolution, goods like sugar and wine became less available.  In the beginning, this was due to the heavy taxes imposed by the British government.  However, many American colonists protested and began forming non-importation, or boycotting, associations refusing to purchase goods including wine, lemons, and sugar.

To learn more about the non-importation agreements, read the text below.

Our recipe for negus harkens to the days before non-importation, full of lemon, sugar, and wine.  Serve this scrumptious drink immediately; it’s not nearly as good cold.


  1. INGREDIENTS: To every pint of port wine allow 1 quart of boiling water, ¼ lb. of sugar, 1 lemon, grated nutmeg to taste.

Mode: As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to ¼ lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar and lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled a little, it will be fit for use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.

Sufficient: – Allow 1 pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of 9 or 10 children.
Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management.  1861.

Recipe Adaptation

Servings: 2
Rest Time: 15 minutes to 2 hours
Cook Time: 5 minutes

¼ cup granulated sugar
Zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon
1 cup of port or red wine a full bodied red wine works best for this beverage
1 cup of boiling water
Nutmeg, to taste

1. In a non-reactive bowl, mix together the sugar and lemon zest.  Let the mixture meld for at least 15 minutes or as much as an hour or two, stirring occasionally.  Over time, the sugar absorbs the fragrant oils from the zest, giving your beverage a light citrusy scent.  (Please use a glass, pottery, or stainless steel bowl or pitcher.  Copper, cast iron, and aluminum will react with the acid in the lemon juice you will add later.)
2. Add the lemon juice to the bowl and stir until completely dissolved.
3. Strain the lemon mixture into a pitcher.  The lemon zest can be unpleasant in the final beverage.  Make sure you choose a pitcher that is suitable for hot liquids.
4. Add the wine to the pitcher, and stir to combine.
5. Add the boiling water to the pitcher, and serve immediately in mugs or punch cups.

Non-importation Agreements

Following the French and Indian War in the 1750s, the British Parliament levied taxes on American colonists in the form of the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend Acts (1767), and the Tea Act (1773).  These laws laid out taxes on many of the goods that Americans purchased from Great Britain, her colonies, or other European countries.  Many of the American colonies responded with non-importation associations, boycotting goods in an effort to force policy changes. George Mason authored Virginia’s non-importation plan, ratified May 17, 1769.   By entering this agreement, Virginians agreed to a list of items they would no longer import or buy.  The document includes fruit, wine, and sugar, among many other products.

Virginians could easily supply themselves with some of the goods listed in non-importation agreements.  The ambiguous “fruit” included foods such as apples, cherries, peaches, and pears, which all grew readily in Virginia.   Lemons, limes, and oranges also fell into the category of fruit, but were luxury goods, accessible only to those who could afford imported goods.  A few wealthy people took on the expense of a greenhouse, as  George Washington did at Mount Vernon.

Western Europeans of all social and economic levels used sugar and its byproducts.  Refined white sugar made its way into beverages, cakes, candies, and was used to preserve fruit.  Molasses, the industrial waste of sugar, turned into rum through fermentation and distillation in the northern American colonies.

A collection of papers listing prices for food and drink at inns in the 18th and 19th century.
Detail of a collection of price listings from British Inns. Negus is listed on the same line as wine for 5 shillings at T. Ashford's Inn. Collection of 20 British inn bills, [circa 1780]-1841. Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

The non-importation agreements were very hard to keep.  Merchants found their businesses foundering.  Though Americans were able to produce many products themselves, colonists struggled with the very human desire for goods they were accustomed to.  In the end most of the non-importation associations collapsed.  Although they did not work in their intended fashion, the non-importation agreements did demonstrate the feelings colonists had about taxation without representation.

Negus at Cocktails by Candlelight